The Prepared Environment: A Montessori Method for Architecture

by Judith Pieprz

December 14, 2011

Approximately 100 years ago a woman named Maria Montessori pioneered a revolution in education. She prescribed several changes to the traditional classroom including mixed age classrooms; large blocks of uninterrupted, self-directed work time; and a model of learning where students work with Montessori-specific materials to directly and practically intuit information rather than simply being told facts.

Another major change that Montessori enacted was in the physical environment of the classroom itself.  A Montessori classroom is almost always beautiful and inviting.  The physical space is fashioned to support the child’s natural tendency towards curiosity and learning.  This is accomplished with beautiful materials that are easily accessed on low, open shelving.  Each handcrafted material has a specific purpose that allows the child to direct his or her own learning. The Montessori Trio: Beauty, Order and Accessibility.

Approximately 15 years ago a woman named Sarah Susanka pioneered a revolution in architecture.  She prescribed several changes to the current residential home design including smaller size, greater quality, the elimination for the most part of rarely used formal spaces, and the integration of lifestyle realities in the design process.  In other words, said Susanka, let’s build homes for the way we really live.

I had the great joy of reading Susanka’s original book, The Not So Big House, when it was first published in 1998 and watching the resulting phenomena that she has become (11 books, website, minizines, community board).  Any observer of the New Urbanism movement in urban design or the Green Movement in construction will immediately feel comfortable with Susanka’s suggestions.  But I would suggest that The Not So Big Revolution is not just a fad or a theory- just as The Montessori Method was not just a fad or a theory.  Rather, Susanka has offered to the world a new way of thinking about architecture just as Maria Montessori taught us a new way to think about education.

When I first stepped into the Not So Big Showcase at Libertyville, Illinois, I had high hopes.  After all, as I mentioned, I have been following Susanka’s work for years.  I was prepared to be impressed.  I was not, however, prepared to be blown away.  Just ask Nancy McLinden, who was giving me my tour the day before Thanksgiving and she will concur that my jaw had to be consciously raised a few times from the ‘mouth agape’ position.  I actually pirouetted across the bamboo floor once or twice when I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm for the floor plan.  What, you may ask, threw me into an epiphany?  The answer is that it was a Prepared Environment.

Usually, architecture dictates to us how we organize and use the space around us.  For example, an enclosed kitchen dictates to us that this space is for cooking- not for socializing or working or eating.  If we were meant to socialize in a kitchen it would have a couch in it.  If we were meant to work in a kitchen it would have a desk.  And if we were meant to eat in a kitchen it would have a table.  The problem is that most of us do all four things in our kitchens: we cook, socialize, work, and eat in them.  Accordingly, an enclosed traditional kitchen simply does not meet our needs.  The answer: a new bigger kitchen with room to do all of these things.  However, the Achilles Heel of this solution is that we can (and have) said the same thing for every room in our house.  I do more than just work in my office, so let’s throw a television, couch, and snack table in there too.  While we’re at it, a 500 square foot dining room would be great and could double as a ballroom/guest room.

Susanka has suggested something different and much saner.  She has suggested taking all of our highly used spaces and merging them into a highly designed and structured place that is beautiful, orderly, and accessible. Her comfortable kitchen is cozy yet spacious and effortlessly opens onto a gracious living area that is nice enough for company but forgiving enough for reality.  The dining area is an everyday blend of homework space and coffee corner that can easily be transformed through brilliant lighting and clever placement into a formal holiday meal space. And the in-home office (called The Away Room) is close enough to hear the screams of tickle-tortured children but acoustically separate enough to meet your payroll deadlines. By keeping all of the activities in close proximity, Susanka is designing a way for us to live- or should I say, Susanka is designing a way because of how we do live.

“Wait!” I can hear you say.  “I don’t want to live in one big room!” Well, here Susanka has you covered.  Here is where we separate the decorators from the designers and where Sarah S. has earned her keep.  The Not So Big House not only has separate rooms, it supports separate activities.  In Susanka’s home the architecture reinforces the parallel but distinct behaviors of a real family.  By creating nooks, the home allows different actions to take place right next to one another without getting in each other’s way.  The variation in ceiling height unconsciously beckons us to sit down and get busy or lie back and relax- all while a few feet away the dishes are being done behind a counter high enough to hide that greasy pot from view. The Away Room is a succinct answer to the home office that must be a place of productivity within a larger environment of familial responsibility.  In other words, Mom can get her work done while still being aware of what’s up with the kids. The smaller square footage allows us to put money and quality into the rooms we do use- and turn them into everyday showcases of usability, beauty, and flexibility.

Even the staircase was a study in detail and perception.  A covered entry step gives way to the vaulted and light-filled stairwell that beckons you to the ‘private’ part of the home.  Everything, from the soaring light fixtures in the whimsical shape of snowflakes to the gasp-invoking roof deck, all propels you to not only use the space, but to enjoy it.  In Susanka’s creation, Beauty is everywhere and in every detail: a red accent wall welcomes you and holds you long enough for our ADD minds to process and enjoy the beautifully contrasting flower arrangement; the window seat with cushions a little more plush than necessary and accordingly too inviting to ignore; the indoor ‘window’ between the living area and kitchen that not only allows for easy visual and verbal contact, but also makes an ideal and cozy sitting area. Susanka is a master at turning Space into Place.

In the Not So Big House everything and everyone has a place and every place has a function and every function is made beautiful- just see what she’s done with the Laundry Room (now called the Glitter Room), but that’s for another article on “Magic in Everyday Life”.  In the Not So Big House, Susanka has created an environment that is not only willing, but is waiting for you to use it, shape it, live it.  That’s what it was created for.  A Prepared Environment.

Prepared for what?  For living.

Judith Pieprz received a Masters Degree in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Washington focusing on Environmental Psychology (how the brain perceives space).  She has done Usability research for Microsoft to help make their products more user friendly and has also co-founded a school based on theories of education and psychology. Pieprz resides in Israel and is the Operations Director for Ayeka.

Not So Big® Showhouse in Realtor Mag

Our Sarah Susanka designed showhouse on SchoolStreet was recently featured in Realtor Mag! Make sure to check out the article and watch the video tour by Sarah herself.

Designing on a Human Scale

Sarah Susanka’s newly-constructed ‘not so big house’ in Libertyville, Ill., provides smart ideas for comfortable living in fewer square feet.

Not So Big® Showhouse Featured in the Daily Herald

Wasted living space expelled from SchoolStreet design

By Deborah Donovan

Sarah Susanka delivers. For more than a decade the architect has been designing “Not So Big Houses” and writing books about them.

Fans have studied the pictures, reread the texts and tried to imagine exactly what she had in mind.

For people in the Chicago suburbs, the wait is over. The first “tract” house designed by Susanka is built, decorated and open for tours.

Read the Article


Walkable Communities are the Future of Housing

Bloomberg Businessweek published an article arguing for the value in transit-oriented development, T.O.D. meaning  projects located in walkable communities with easy access to public or mass transportation. In the story, Shaun Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said, “The ghost towns of the housing bust are places that lack transportation options, that aren’t walkable. The average family spends 52 cents of every dollar they earn on housing and transportation combined, so the biggest opportunity is in development around transportation.”

Read the article:

Similar to the SchoolStreet project, StreetScape development is committed towards delivering sustainable projects through urban infill and Transit Oriented Development.

SchoolStreet on the Front Page of the Chicago Tribune’s Real Estate Section!

SchoolStreet and the Not So Big® Showhouse were featured on the front page of the Sunday Real Estate Section of the Chicago Tribune.

Living large in less space

New Libertyville house showcases architect Susanka’s ‘not so big’ principles

Mary Ellen PodmolikThe Home FrontNovember 25, 2011

For the past 12 years, architect Sarah Susanka has espoused the need for houses that are smaller, yes, but also more practical and eminently more livable.

She’s written books, given presentations and worked privately for homeowners. Now, with the era of the McMansion in the rearview mirror for many, Susanka has partnered with a Chicago-area developer to construct a “not so big” home in Libertyville to show consumers what she has been talking about all these years.

The showcase home, located at the 26-site SchoolStreet Homes development under construction a block east of downtown, is open for weekend tours until May 20…. Read the rest of the article here

See the Video of the Green Roof Installation at the Not So Big® Showhouse

Hursthouse Landscape Architects and Contractors create a rooftop garden on top of Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big® Showhouse located in Libertyville, Illinois. Here is the fantastic video they made of the installation!

For more information on the Hursthouse, visit

Not So Big® Showhouse featured in Minneapolis Star Tribune

‘Not So Big House’ takes center stage

Article by: LYNN UNDERWOOD , Star Tribune

Updated: November 19, 2011 – 2:34 PM

Sarah Susanka wanted to show people how they can live comfortably with less space.

So the celebrated architect and author of “The Not So Big House” series of books designed a showhouse in SchoolStreet, a new housing development in Libertyville, Ill., which opened for tours this week. We chatted with Susanka about “better-not-bigger” design, strategic wall color and the house of the future….

Read the Interview:

Over 500 People Attend the Not So Big® Showhouse Grand Opening!

Despite the gray skies, and blustery weather, over 500 people showed up to get the first glimpse of the Not So Big® Showhouse, and meet the architect, Sarah Susanka.

If you didn’t have a chance to see it today, there is another open house Sunday from 1-4pm.

Spread the word, and come see Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big® design concepts firsthand!

Open House

Sunday , November 20 1-4pm

138 School Street

Libertyville, IL 60048

A Local Perspective on the Not So Big® Showhouse

Libertyville resident and blogger,  Jen Merrill, was at Sarah Susanka’s presentation of the Not So Big® Showhouse last night, and wrote a very nice piece from her local perspective:

Not So Big but Just Right

November 17th, 2011
It’s no secret I was living in real estate hell last spring. A good third of my house was in storage, I had to keep the place showroom perfect, I was flying solo, and I had no earthly idea where we were going to live or when. Good times, good times. Somehow I heard about Sarah Susanka and her Not So Big House concept. Intrigued, and knowing that no matter where we ended up the house was going to be considerably smaller, I devoured her books and fell hard.Read the whole post:



Sarah and John Interview with Residential Architect Magazine

Not So Big® Showhouse architect Sarah Suanaka, and StreetScape’s John McLinden sat down with Residential rchitect Magazine this week. Read the Original Article

q + a: sarah susanka, faia, and john mclinden on the not so big showhouse in libertyville, ill.

by: meghan drueding

On Nov. 19, Sarah Susanka’s 2,450-square-foot Not So Big (NSB) Showhouse in Libertyville, Ill., will open to the public for six months. The house is part of SchoolStreet Homes, a community of 26 single-family homes and 15 lofts. residential architect’s Meghan Drueding spoke with Susanka and SchoolStreet’s developer, John McLinden.

ra: What sets SchoolStreet apart from other developments?

jm: Three key things: One, we purchased the property out of foreclosure, so we have a price advantage. Two, we’re adjacent to fabulous, vibrant downtown Libertyville, a town of 22,000 people. Three, the product. We have an architect-guided process. We have architects on staff as well as working with different firms.

ss: The quality of the architects is excellent. They’re not just giving lip service to design. A house can have less square footage, but it’s got to be better quality. John has 21 of 26 homes sold and has increased prices by 15 percent to 18 percent. Quality is what people are looking for, and a sense of community.

ra: Sarah, how did you come to build the NSB Showhouse there?

ss: I was looking for a developer who really got that quality and character are important. I told John my desire to do a show house that was available for the general public to go through. I did a show house at the International Builders’ Show, but nobody but the trade knew about the house. I wanted someplace where I could have a showcase that would be open at least six months, so that people could kick the tires.

ra: What are some of the key design features of the NSB Showhouse?

ss: The size [2,450 square feet] was very intentional. When downsizing comes up, the press goes to the far end of the spectrum and talks about tiny houses. A minute segment of the population is ever going to live in tiny houses. A big segment of the population is looking at 3,000- to 5,000-square-foot houses. They don’t want to go much smaller.

I’m trying to show that if you eliminate the spaces you rarely use, you can actually have a house that lives large. I like to show a really, really comfortable 2,300- to 2,500-square-foot home. You make that home by eliminating formal living spaces, by having an “away room” where you can go to be quiet and get away. You have the home be accessible. You have it be close to downtown so you can age in place.

One of the main floor plan ideas for the NSB Showhouse is that there is no formal dining room. You can take the dining table and move it into the library alcove and extend as needed. Also, there’s a lot of ceiling height variety, rather than walls, to indicate different spaces. And the stair tower becomes a light shaft from the third floor.

ra: Why Libertyville?

jm: Libertyville is a pedestrian kind of town. Out of the New Urbanist playbook, the homes at SchoolStreet are positioned close to the street to encourage pedestrians. It really does that. There’s kind of a romance to a front porch … front porch parties have already started to break out.

ss: In Libertyville, almost 30 years ago, people in the community started to focus on how to keep their Main Street vital. Its downtown doesn’t feel like a suburb. It feels like its own entity. It’s a cool place to come to.

ra: Is the NSB Showhouse for sale?

ss: In early 2012 the house will be released for sale and we will release the sale price then. But it will be open on weekends to the public for six months. We will have events where people can learn about SchoolStreet and the NSB house concept.

Read more on this project in our sister magazine, EcoHome, or follow the included links to learn more about the Not So Big Showhouse and SchoolStreet Homes.

excerpt taken from Residential Architect, November 17, 2011:–a-sarah-susanka-and-john-mclinden.aspx?cid=rabu:111611